Art and Life
To the End of the Land
by David Grossman. Translated by Jessica Cohen. (Knopf, 592 pp. $26.95)
In the summer of 2006, in the waning hours of the Second Lebanon War, author David Grossman lost his son Uri when the young soldier’s tank was hit by a Hezbollah rocket. For a great many Israelis, Grossman’s personal tragedy was instantly emblematic of the nation’s pain and frustration: Something had to be done in response to repeated missile attacks, but the bungled war of 2006, lacking focus or achievable objectives, only deepened the national mood of futility.
At that time, the peace activist and celebrated author of the scintillating See Under: Love(Picador) and six other novels was deeply immersed in composing a new novel whose progress his son had been following closely. As Grossman heartbreakingly informs us in an afterword, “I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” Such is the sort of magical thinking in which, at times, we all indulge to maintain the illusion that we exercise a modicum of control over events.
The novel appeared two years ago in Israel. The good tidings is that the book has now been sensitively translated by Jessica Cohen into English as To the End of the Land.
At its center is Ora, a complex, magnificent creation. Her younger son, Ofer, had promised, on the completion of his military service, to accompany her on a walking tour of the Galilee so that after three years of anxiety the two of them might chill out together.
Instead, war breaks out and Ofer yields to an inner compulsion to rejoin his Army unit in Lebanon.
Abandoned by her husband, Ilan (off on a jaunt to South America with their older son in tow), Ora takes refuge in her own variation of magical thinking: Were she not at home to receive bad news, it could not transpire. So she sets out on a protective walk, a hike along the north-south Israel National Trail accompanied not by her son but most reluctantly by Avram, Ofer’s biological father and Ilan’s closest friend. Avram had been captured by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War and brutally tortured before his release. Rehabilitation left Avram with only the thinnest veneer of normality; in fact, he had never recovered from his ordeal.
Almost any random paragraph shows Grossman’s writing to be precise and closely observed as well as richly evocative:
A shadow falls on them at midday. They are walking through the Tsivon stream bed, a deep, strange channel that silences them. The path meanders among large, broken rocks, and they must climb and take calculated steps. The oak trees around them are forced to grow tall, stretch higher and higher to reach the sunlight. Pale ivy and long ferns cascade down from the treetops. They walk over a bed of crumbling dry leaves among bloodless cyclamens and albino fungi….
Walking together, Ora compulsively relates stories from Ofer’s infancy to young manhood; for Avram, the listening, the questioning, the pushing forward along the Israel trail are restorative. The operative mantra for Ora is to keep on walking, keep on talking. Were she to relent or relax, the magic would lose its potency and tragedy surely follow. Long before the end of the trail and the tale, the attentive reader knows too well its inexorable denouement.
These three—Ora, Avram and Ilan—have by turns been friends, lovers and rivals since adolescence. Along with the two sons, we inhabit and come to know them inside and out. Not only do their relationships echo facets of the archetypal family patterns in Genesis, but, along with Sami (their Palestinian driver), this ensemble embodies the essential configuration of Israeli society embedded in its native topography.
Wrenchingly brilliant in conception, masterful in execution, exquisitely written, To the End of the Land is touched by greatness. —Haim Chertok
The Invisible Bridge
by Julie Orringer. (Knopf, 592 pp. $26.95)
Raoul Wallenberg’s 1944 rescue of thousands of Budapest Jews from the clutches of Adolf Eichmann is one of the more remarkable stories to emerge from the Holocaust. Some- times forgotten, though, is that Hungary’s Jews had already sustained unimagined horrors dating from the mid-1930s: 600,000 deported to Nazi death camps and countless thousands sent to slave labor battalions to support the Hungarian Army. Now, Julie Orringer has contributed The Invisible Bridge, a remarkable tale of love, lust, struggle, angst, brutality, intrigue and redemption, and those are only a few of the themes in this spellbinder.
Starting in the ominous world of prewar Europe, this sweeping historical novel follows the tribulations of a middle-class Hungarian family, seen through the eyes of 22-year-old Andras Levi as he secures a scholarship to study architecture in Paris after Hungarian schools closed their doors to Jews. His beloved brother Tibor gets financial assistance to study medicine in Italy. On their last night in Budapest, the brothers attend the opera, which serves as a metaphor for their future: grand passion and great tragedy. A third brother, a happy-go-lucky tap dancer, disappears early on. His whereabouts remain a mystery throughout the war.
While Andras excels in his studies and bonds with fellow Jewish students as they confront rising anti-Semitism, two events overtake him. He falls madly in love with Klara, a Hungarian-born ballet instructor almost 10 years his senior, and he loses his scholarship and must return to Hungary. The relationship between Andras and Klara, who harbors a mysterious secret, is at the heart of the book.
The deep and abiding love between Andras and Klara almost sears off the pages with its fearless passion. This is no small feat, given the vicissitudes of the unfolding events and the German occupation of Hungary.
As Andras matures, the war overwhelms him, just as it overwhelms all of Europe. His dreams are shattered and his future is derailed.
When war breaks out, Andras is conscripted into the dreaded Hungarian labor force, transforming him into “a speck of human dust, lost on the eastern edge of Europe.” Through luck and guile, he gets transferred to a base not far from his home. But such “luck” doesn’t last, and Andras and Tibor, together by happenstance, are assigned to a work detail in the Ukraine. The brothers become painfully dehumanized, mere observers at the dispersal of their families and the dismantling of the world.
Orringer moves the story along with compelling incidents, arcing from prewar beer-and-smoke-filled Parisian cafés to an attempt to escape to Palestine to excruciating scenes among the desperate Jewish conscripts to more sordid actions too horrible to describe.
It took years for Orringer, 37, to discover that her grandfather, a Hungarian-born survivor, had studied architecture in Paris for two years as a young man. In masterly and detailed strokes, Orringer imagines and expands on her grandfather’s experiences as a slave laborer supporting the Hungarian Army against advancing Soviet troops. She evokes luminescent Paris and a bustling Budapest.
In brilliant, easily accessible prose, Orringer brings the novel up to date by transporting her surviving characters to the United States, where the family adopts the surname Tibor.
The cover of the book shows the pylons of Budapest’s landmark Chain Bridge at the tail end of World War II, divided and shrouded in mist after an Allied bombing. It is a bitter but forceful reminder of what was lost in the most calamitous period of the 20th century. But it is also a symbol of the uncanny ability of the human spirit to persevere and succeed. —Stewart Kampel
The Frozen Rabbi
by Steve Stern. (Algonquin Books, 370 pp. $24.95)
There are irreverent novels and then there are irreverent novels, works of fiction that hurl sharp harpoons at their targets. Steve Stern’s ribald, improbable new novel belongs to the latter category.
In The Frozen Rabbi, Bernie Karp, a nebbishy teenager living in Memphis, has his life turned upside down when he finds a Hasidic rabbi from Poland, Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, in his family’s freezer. (The rabbi originally froze while praying outside one icy day, when a storm caused the waters of the pond to rise and engulf him.)
Alternating historical and contemporary chapters, Stern disentangles how the rabbi made it from 19th-century Poland to Karp’s 21st-century New South, and what happens once the rabbi thaws. Along the way, many of Stern’s characters have escapades in seminal places of modern Jewish history.
Salo Frostbissen (a k a Frostbite), the rabbi’s first keeper, trades one of his animals to a Polish peasant in exchange for his first wife. Their daughter subsequently cross-dresses as a man, taking the sexually loaded name Max Feinshmeker, to make the iconic immigrant journey to the Lower East Side. Indeed, sex, in addition to Jewish mysticism, is one of the novel’s main tropes—think Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth.
The novel features a lot of history, but some of Stern’s sharpest wit targets current Jewish life. He jokes that the congregation the Karps attend, Reform Congregation Felix Frankfurter, is so progressive it is closed on the High Holidays.
Nor does the recent Jewish mysticism fad fare better. Once defrosted, Rabbi ben Zephyr masters English and American culture with the help of television and becomes a self-help guru. Of course, he is more interested in having sex with his followers than in providing enlightenment.
Still, the rabbi’s friendship with Karp does the teenager some good. Described at the beginning of the novel as a “solitary, petulant kid, his chubby cheeks in the first flush of cystic acne,” Karp flourishes as he becomes interested in mysticism and Yiddish. He also finds a girlfriend, the non-Jewish (and more sexually experienced) Lou Ella Tuohy, who is attracted by Karp’s blossoming metaphysical abilities.
The Frozen Rabbi‘s ending is implausible and a bit disturbing. (Don’t worry: No spoilers here!) But Stern, a National Jewish Book Award winner for The Wedding Jester (Graywolf Press), knows how to make the reader laugh. Plus, underneath the humor, Stern develops sympathetic characters.
As these characters entertain, Stern raises some highly charged issues, including a question central to contemporary Jewish life: What has Judaism become in 21st-century America? Or maybe serious is not what Stern is after. Perhaps he’s just reminding us that it’s important to laugh at ourselves. —Peter Ephross
The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
by Jonathan Schneer. (Random House, 432 pp. $30)
The Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, was a seminal document in the history of political Zionism. It consisted of a deceptively simple letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, nominal leader of the British Jewish community, in which Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour averred that the British government was prepared to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.” However, as Jonathan Schneer asserts in his meticulously researched and dramatically recounted history of the declaration, the complexities, both military and diplomatic, of World War I and the roles played by a diverse and colorful cast of personalities were responsible for the declaration’s issuance and the cataclysmic events it triggered.
As Britain and France battled Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire belatedly entered the war, allying itself with the central powers in an effort to deter Russia, then the eastern ally of Great Britain. Britain saw Turkey’s entry as both a threat and an opportunity. A Turkish defeat would enable the British to strengthen its hold on the Suez Canal, its lifeline to its eastern possessions, and allow it to control Mediterranean ports. Turkey actively defended its Middle Eastern provinces, achieving victory in important battles, most tellingly at Gallipoli, a disaster for British forces.
Britain, nevertheless, remained committed not only to a military campaign in the Middle East but to a diplomatic one. Schneer pays attention to the battlefields, but the burden of his thesis relies on his astute analysis of the dynamics of diplomacy. He is a skilled portraitist, offering vivid descriptions of individuals whose actions and ideas had made an impact on the history of their times. The espionage efforts of agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn and his sister Sarah are dramatically described, as are the battles fought by Arab irregulars under the leadership of T.E. Lawrence, the legendary British officer who hoped to mold the Arabs into a nation. The author focuses on Lawrence’s daring escapades as he and his army harassed the Turks by destroying railroad tracks and launching assaults on Ottoman troops in Palestine.
Schneer’s account of diplomatic intrigues is gripping. Colorful characters include arms dealers and mountebanks, architects of British foreign policy and Zionist leaders. Chaim Weizmann is described as a brilliant charmer who, against all odds, converts non-Jewish British officials to Zionism, relying on his own perception that they had an instinctive sympathy for a Jewish homeland. Clearly, Balfour, in his letter to Lord Rothschild, validated that insight.
Sadly, the British promise to the Jewish people contained in the Balfour Declaration conflicted with their promises to the Arabs, to the French and their informal assent to an international condominium that would have affected the sovereignty of Palestine. Schneer rightly impugns the British for this calculated deceit and contradictory edicts, even as he celebrates their brave effort to orchestrate regime changes in Turkey and throughout the Arab world.
The Balfour Declaration clearly limns the origins of today’s Arab-Israeli conflict. Vivacious in style, delightful in its descriptions and insights, it offers a unique understanding of today’s Middle East and the historic miasma that continues to haunt it. —Sheldon Horowitz
The Jewish Odyssey: An Illustrated History
by Marek Halter. Translated by Charles Penwarden. (Flammarion, 240 pp. $49.95)
Marek Halter, popular author of fictional histories of biblical women, takes his history personally, writing about the resemblance between a Sumerian/Akkadian sculpture of an elderly couple and a picture of his Warsaw-born grandparents. When describing the Jewish contribution to the advancement of printing, he tell us that he is a direct descendent of Johannes Gutenberg’s associate, Gabriel, son of Aaron, who came from a long line of scribes; in Alsace, Gabriel was called Halter— “guardian” of the book.
Halter distinctively narrates Jewish history—from its Sumerian origins to the European settlement (the period of enlightenment, destruction and renaissance) to the Jewish sojourn in the diaspora as a subversive, creative people. He conjoins the stories with magnificent biblical art, most of which, he points out, were painted by non-Jewish artists because of the biblical prohibition of making graven images.
Among the 150 illustrations are a 1307 work by Al-Biruni, Abraham Destroys the Idols of the Sabians; Willliam Blake’s 1798 Moses and the Burning Bush; and photographs from the inception of the Zionist movement as well as the anti-Israel demonstrations at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
The museum catalog format adds a rich visual perspective to Halter’s quirky history. —Zelda